Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Existential thought


I had a dream last night that has largely faded away, but one part of it somehow had to do with the German philosopher Martin Heidegger. I have been troubled by Heidegger since I was in high school, when my favorite teacher handed me a copy of Being and Time and invited me to give it a try. I gave it back a couple days later, having found it more or less unintelligible, but returned to the book later and have been haunted by Heidegger's thought ever since.

The central and most interesting Heideggerean thought to me echoes a Heraclitean saying, "Nature loves to hide." This is the thought--the personal thought--that my life will end in death, that I will cease, like all of us mortals, to be. What Heidegger brings into focus is the realization that I can grasp this illuminating thought only on occasion, and that for the most part I live my life with the 'natural' assumption that I will go on forever, that all that exists is bounded within the framework of my time. The human nature in me is at ease within that concealment, that world of untruth.

Heidegger does much to describe the practical goal-directed structure of modern historical time lived within the human technological and social illusion, of preoccupation with the world of careers and mass media and political opinion and social values, of life that looks only obliquely and then averts its gaze from the existential revelation of personal death and meaning found, if at all, within the shadow of death. For Heidegger, the entire history of 'objective' philosophy--from Plato through Descartes and Kant to modern analytic and linguistic philosophy--has been written, no less than the history of religion, in the cave of inauthentic human nature. Against this, he seeks: a courageous mode of philosophizing--"thinking"--that exists in the other, almost blinding light; a resolute mode of human being that does not repress our limitedness, that does not rely on any of the multiplicity of opiates available to us to enable a truth-evasive, inauthentic life.

That is the first part of the story, which, like Sophocles' Herakles, is broken in two disjointed halves, with the second part more disturbing. Heidegger was a Nazi. He thought of democratic-capitalistic America and totalitarian-communistic Russia as on an ideological par. He lacked political sense and judgment. And every student of his thought has had to wonder, why? Is there an intrinsic connection between his 'metaphysical' thinking and his politics?

In one simple way, the answer seems to be "yes." This has to do with Heidegger's repudiation of science, epistemology and logic as the orienting ground from which philosophical thinking operates. Once you make these the ground, you commit yourself to the idea of a critical community of thinkers and inquirers, within which knowledge is revealed and tested, and to the skeptical notion of truth as a regulative idea, which can only be tentatively achieved. From that point there it is much easier to transition to the democratic idea of a political community of persons, within which the common good is deliberated and struggled for, a diverse and limited community in which persons are all regarded as having equal worth and the right to pursue their own happiness--as opposed to the idea of the individual as serving or participating in a more unified and dynamic community oriented to one general will and one dominating truth.

In the end, Heideggeran existentialism, however profound its insight into the 'historicity' of human being, however powerful its representation of our cultural blindness to the meaning of existence, fails as a life-philosophy, because it does not respect the plurality of human action. We are all and always beginners in this world, each with the right to make or re-make a life, find and persuade others of our truth. In his own pursuit of truth, Heidegger lost sight of the interpersonal ground within which not only truth, but also justice, must be contested.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009


I've been thinking lately about transitions, feeling strongly that I am in one, though just what form it will take is not yet determined. In any case, I have passed through most of the classicalpattern of ages of man, (1) infancy and childhood (2) youth, h.s. to college (3) young adulthood, late college, the army, grad school (4) adulthood, marriage and work (5) late adulthood/maturity, the past decade or so, and am moving into (6) early old age, with (7) retirement and (8) very old age, e.g. in a nursing home still to come.

The idea of basic transitions suggests there may be different arts of living for different stages of life. It is also relevant to the idea of personal self-knowledge: knowing that you are making or need to make the transition to a new way of conceiving yourself. It is certainly true that different categories of value are centrally important in different periods of one's life.

Erik Erikson breaks up the stages of life somewhat differently than I, linking them to specific "identity issues" that need to be resolved before a person can fully move into the next developmental stage in their life: (1) infancy - trust/mistrust (2) toddler - autonomy/shame & doubt (3) preschool - initiative/guilt (4) childhood - industry/inferiority (5) adolescence - identity/role confusion (6) young adulthood - intimacy/isolation (7) adulthood - generativity/stagnation (8) senior - integrity/despair, with the chief part of life falling in adulthood (25-65).

I find those categories useful, but am close to old age by his measure (I'm 63), entered into 'adulthood' later than he suggests, and have sought generativity rather differently in the past decade or so than I did in the earlier two decades of my adulthood, with a stronger emphasis on friendship and relations to others, a deeper sense of my mortality, and a conscious desire to shape my 'art of living.' I also sense the coming years until I retire and probably even beyond that will take significantly different forms, if I live to be as old as many of my ancestors (85-90).

This awareness of transition has pointed me toward the new future I have before me, even if I experience mature life autobiographically as one in which I have made many of the outwardly most basic decisions, even if I know my life by mere quantitative measure is mostly over. It no longer makes the same sense to think of time as enormously open, of the long run of my career and love and friendships, of grand ambitions.

But this has helped me to make each moment, each day more intense, at the same time when I am more relaxed about it. I give myself more fully to the kairos/opportunity with just this other person(s) than I did when I was in my 20's or 30's. Expecting and demanding less of people, in particular myself, I find I achieve more, relate better, even evoke more positive feelings and actions in others. My generativity does not depend on me alone. My integrity is more intact now than ever.

Thursday, October 8, 2009


In the summer of 1975, with my dissertation in philosophy due the next spring and having written exactly nothing, I removed myself to a cabin deep in the northern woods, where the borders of Vermont, New Hampshire and Canada meet. It was my intention to use the time and quiet, away from my girlfriend and our society, to compose myself and my thought, and return to school with a draft in hand.

The cabin belonged to a minister friend named David, who lived with his new wife Emily in the local village; he had invited me to use it and visit them, in the course of my time there. For myself, however, I merely sought isolation and work, and the first week or so, all went well, as I sought to accustom myself to the woods' silence and its odd noises at night. But by the second week things began to go south, as I could not run even a hundred yards without swarms of black flies descending on me, like poor Io stung by Hera's wrath. As for the noises, they turned out to be co-dwelling mice, and when I startled to find one on my chest one night, I lay traps, which now and then would snap, as sharp as any clock's alarm. On the tenth night, I heard a great pawing at the door, which I shouted away, only to hear a bellow and then glimpse through the window, in my fright, a black bear lumbering into the dark. Now I was no longer alone.

My discomfort with nature was not all that drove me back into town, however, for I was lonely, and my work was not going well. What was my thesis, anyway? A thousand books had been written on Aristotle, what could I add to that pile? So I drove each day for a week into town, to David's house, hoping to find him or Emily there, seeking some human companionship. But mostly they were away at their work, so I would return back to my dark cabin unhappy, and to ease and I thought perhaps loosen and inspire my mind, I smoked grass. But smoking in the day or night, I thought again of my hungry friend, and of the mice and the snakes they might attract, and the next day I took my stash to town, to listen to music on David's machine, and eat some cookies, and just relax.

Well, Emily came in and got upset, and she told David and he told me, in a kind but I felt preachy voice--had we not smoked together, back in our undergrad days?--that I could not come in their home on my own any more, and didn't I realize what his parishioners would think? I fled back to the woods, still a little stoned and burning of cheek. I went for a long walk, discovering the flies were not as bad in the late afternoon, and found my way to a pond, which sat nestled by a hill. I stripped, dove in and came up refreshed, sat at the edge and stared into the water. I returned every day it didn't rain from then on, and one afternoon, near the end of the summer, saw a large elk on the opposite shore.

So I had to adjust to my neighbors in the cabin, now my closest friends, and I took up my traps, and lay out small gifts, and watched them and their little children sometimes with my flashlight at night. As for the bear, I decided to cook at a fire outside at night, reasoning she would be put off by the flames, but I was also more careful now not to leave foodstuffs outside and to keep my door shut. I heard the bear once or twice again, but was not afraid. As for the humans, I ordered my day in better balance, devoting at least an hour from then on to letters, and composed an apology to Emily and Dave, which I dropped off one afternoon with a housegift and flowers, thinking I would miss them, but Emily was there, and we made up. Still, I decided to stay mostly by myself in the woods, coming in just weekly for Saturday dinner, and quit smoking weed.

The work took its own course, as I sketched out, in rough form, the respective roles I found in Aristotle's ethics to nature and nurture and personal choice, and developed a chapter on the ethics and virtues of shame and honor, compared to those of freedom. I concluded that Aristotle was compelled, like all of us, to harmonize his theory of political life with his quest for wisdom. The body intruded and set its bounds, we needed to fit to our nature, we were not our minds alone. I got the Ph.D. the following spring.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

My Art of Living III


"You are what you eat."

Part of what keeps me from becoming a 'complete philosopher', I admit, is my inveterate love of reading. For example, I just went to the library to get a book on Aristotle, and I found myself picking up four books--Lionel Trilling's Sincerity and Authenticity, a book on gratitude, another on philosophy and the good life, and a fourth on friendship. I want to read them all. Of course, I won't--taking all four is just an indication of my inability to restrain this desire-to-read appetite--but I'll read parts or all of several over the next few weeks, along with Straight Man by Richard Russo, which I'm getting into on a second attempt. I do that, every once in a while--just surrender my free time, which might more profitably be spent in serious scholarship and professional, publication-oriented writing, even preparing classes, to reading.

My reading tastes have changed quite a bit over the years, and probably will continue to change. I tend to mix the popular and scholarly indifferently, though I've found it more difficult in the last ten years to read avant garde novels, either because they are too long or too formally demanding. So in much of my pleasure reading I slid toward high quality detective novels, American (Hammett, Chandler, Ross McDonald, Michael Connelly, Valin, Mosely, Hamilton) and European (Durrenmatt, Simenot, Sjoewal & Wahlooe, Peter Robinson, Camilieri, Mankel), or non-fiction on golf (Merullo's Passion for Golf, Lee Eisenberg's Breaking Eighty), gardens (like the book by Robert Pogue Harrison I referenced in an earlier blog), or 'more serious' works of history, e.g. Carl Schorske's book on turn of century Vienna, biography (Safranski's Nietzsche and Heidegger, Grodin's Gadamer), classics (Fitzgerald's Odyssey, Arrowsmith's Hercules and Clouds) or poetry, e.g. Yeats, Whitman, Rilke, Heaney. One year I got into Austen. Another year, Thucydides. Another, Vonnegut--you see how casual my choices are. Every few years I return to Shakespeare. I just read them, fast or slow, as I wish, Epicurean style. (Last spring I read several of the comedies, viewed Branaugh's magical As You Like It, and re-read chunks of Bloom's Invention of the Human.) I read McEwen's Saturday, Ishiguro's Never Let Go, Specimen Days by Michael Cunningham. I have tried to read Cormack McCarthy, but I find him horrific.

Part of my problem is "I give at work." I read and re-read serious, demanding literature for my philosophy classes. So I gradually found myself less inclined to read in my 'free time.' It is too bad, because what drew me into reading philosophy was not only the discovery that there was a fascinating world of literature to travel in, but that some authors created works that invited something like an "art" in reading, and that the application of that art was different from the methods used in conventional scholarship. Strauss's gnostic reading of Plato, Klein's treatment of the Meno, studies in the "middle way." Some authors' books can't be judged by their cover. They are more like mines or labyrinths you have to go down into, if you are to get to their core and find your way back home. But I got away from that more original form of reading as I began to publish in professional journals, and to that end reading can become simply an analytic task: you reconstruct the argument in broad and then more specific form, you analyse the steps, you weigh the merit and breadth of the examples, you consider alternative hypotheses. You look beyond the text toward the construction of an argument, from beauty as it were toward truth. Reading gives way in the service of writing, the original pleasure to a labor of mind. (I suspect this happens to many professors throughout the humanities.)

My desire to recapture my naive experience of reading as a way of discovery and imagination is partly why I am always drawn to re-reading Plato, and why in recent years I have also been attracted to Montaigne (and even Machiavelli, though sort of only when I have to). The structure of argument occurs within a narrative of actions involving characters and emotion as well as speech or thought. This gives his works an "open texture" which the reader is invited to reconstruct in full, so that rather than monologues (like, e.g. Aristotle or Kant) they imitate "dialogues" between the reader and Plato or Socrates. There is the aspect of puzzle to Plato's works, even the seemingly most didactic of them, and if this sometimes becomes so complex as to almost defeat you (e.g. the 'rational enterprise' of examining 'knowledge' in the Theaetetus), the reader is invited into the life and process of philosophy, not just its theoretical-systematic outcomes. I find this attraction also in the Essays, the challenge of discerning how the individual essay "tests" and "experiments" with its subject-matter(s), what is going on under as well as on the surface, how the piece fits into his time and manners, and what the conceptual opposites are that he is exploring in the work, and finally who this man Michel de Montaigne is. I'm toying now with the possibility of devoting my next semester's leave to the study of the Essays. Will I have something to contribute? Or is that the wrong way to think about it? Do I have anything better to read and study?

Reading is a solitary pleasure, but it connects you with another's mind. So there is a kind of friendship that can emerge in some reading--I feel it for Shakespeare at times, in some of the characters I love like Falstaff and Rosalind, for Nietzsche in a few works, here and there with other authors. Plato is too great; I'm overawed by him. (Shakespeare is too great, too, of course, but I don't feel the same challenge to think through the structure of ideas in the plays as I do in the Dialogues; often I read them too quickly, too lightly.) Aristotle turns into an intellectual exercise, often complex but somehow impersonal. But Montaigne seems almost just right. On the other hand, I don't have anyone to read Montaigne with; and reading is not complete unless it connects in a human way with friendship. And there is also the fact that Montaigne does annoy me a little. But Socrates does, too.

I know I must abandon my self-indulgent love of reading for its own sake for an art of reading that is creative, productive of speech or writing, that finds and carries home to me and others the truth and beauty of the works I take hold of and shape in my own way. The art of reading points beyond itself to real dialogue, read communication, and to an art of living in which it is a contributing part. We are meant to learn to read in order to re-discover together the "old truths," the verities that transport us beyond ourselves to that which we have in common and remakes us all. But to succeed in this, our great pedagogic goal, we have to learn to tarry along the way, to surrender our time and cares, to ruminate, chew over, think through and even muse on what we read, to let the books speak to us, before we consume them as resources for our art. We have to let them work on us, if we are to work on them. I am what I have done with what I have read, but perhaps even more what has read itself into me. In reading, I must be written on, before I can write of what I've read.

FOOTNOTE: Curiously I forgot to mention the Bible, which I read and studied for years, esp. the first two books of the OT and the first three Gospels, esp. Matthew. I also followed unconventional guides into these strange countries, Caputo and his moderating successor Sarna in relation to Genesis and Exodus, pomo approaches to the NT, e.g. Borg, Crosson. Then one day, after my children had grown up, I left organized religion, and simply stopped reading the Bible, to make my home in what to me was more natural and fertile country to the northwest. No doubt I was written on by these studies, but I am moved less by "transcendental humors" today than in the past, and have no particular desire to go back.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Thoughts on Montaigne III


I had my AOL class do posters on other readings in Montaigne, and among the ones they chose were "On the Force of the Imagination," "On Cannibals," and "To Philosophize is to Learn to Die," all very much relevant to "On Experience," Montaigne's final word in his Essays. For experience is real in a way that imagination is not, or at least in a way that unexamined imagination is not, and we learn from the cannibals that there are ways of life that make us question whether there is any commonality to the human condition or at least whether that commonality is easy to discern, and we learn from philosophy that death, that forerunning shadow, is somehow a natural part of life, even if "terribly awe-filling" (Greek deinos) and beyond its limits.

The one thing binding them all together is Montaigne, the man, body and soul who resists all of our efforts to erase him. And he speaks for us all, insofar as he speaks for himself, an individual, caught willy-nilly in the currents of his body and his culture, caught between the zealous factions of his neighbors, over-burdened by the weight of religious, political and even philosophical authorities, struggling out from under all of those powers to assert--le moi, the "I am" that all of us want to be, the free thinker, the free spirit, the free person, who might join with other free persons in all the modes of interaction due to us...

Michel Montaigne! I find myself continually coming back to the man. Look at this "assay," this experiment, this trial in words. In the first part, (i) a discourse which seems to go back and forth between the law and books, culminating in his praise of self-knowledge. In the second, (ii) a discourse on medicine, the body and his struggles with "the stone," culminating in his acceptance of death and his avowal of a life of self-government in which he will live as a whole man, body and soul.

"And how else would you have me live? Am I a brute, impelled through a life of mere imagination? No. Am I an angel or Stoic sage, guided by revelation or reason alone, indifferent to my body and its pains and pleasures? Again those are/that is a lie. For I have learned by experience to acknowledge who and what I am: a man, nothing else. A man who lives in--nay, who is his body, no less than mind or 'soul'. A man who in aging agrees to let go. A man who has learned to ride the natural motion of life, that ends if well played in a difficult but not all-terrifying good bye. I am--I will be--I was Michel de Montaigne. And so you, my friend."

He is an annoyingly egoistic fellow at times--you want to jerk him up out of his seemingly self-satisfied egoism, point out the world: how dare you be so genial in the midst of such injustice? why are you not transported beyond yourself in love? But then he pricks at you like Socrates, in his own private political way. What is he saying about the "knowledge" in books, and what book(s) does he have in mind? How should we hold ourselves in relation to the "law" we are taught to practice and believe? What is the role for self-knowledge in the free life, and for freedom in the practices of self-knowledge?

And how he liberates us, too, from and for our bodies! Are you horny? Been there, done that. Just find someone to satisfy yourself with once in while, and don't get too moralistic about it. And if you can make it work in a marriage, all the better for you! Are you sick? Ride it out. Don't complain too much, or expect too much from the doctors, and for God's sake don't start thinking they will save you! Make sensible decisions, and realize that you are not made to last forever. Accomodate yourself to death, and you will allow it to play a small but healthy role in your life--ever-present, but never-dominant, until the end. This is the human life, the life of "experience." This is the human wisdom, the wisdom of the "accidental philosopher."

We are our bodies, and we are our souls, and neither are whole. We are incapable of self-certainty or self-rule, but we can acquire a little self-knowledge, and work at sensible self-government, and what is wisdom but that? We are made not to be anyone's servants, not even Nature's, but we have to be prudent about how we assert our freedom, if we want to keep it. For we live, decisively, in vaguery and contingency. We have to learn prudence--to enjoy life. And enjoying life, we become--who we are.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Thoughts on Montaigne II


I have been re-reading Shakes-peare’s Henry IV, marveling at the bumptious beauty of his Fal-staff. This led me back to Bloom’s great Shakespeare: the Invention of the Human, and to Bradley’s gloss on Falstaff as a symbol and spokesman of freedom, bursting the balloon of every serious intent: “He will make truth absurd, by solemn statements he expects no one to believe; and honor, by demonstrating that it cannot set a leg; and law, by evading all the attacks of its highest representative, almost forcing him to laugh at his own defeat; and patriotism, by filling his pockets with bribes offered by soldiers who want to escape service; and duty, by showing how he labors in his vocation—of thieving; and courage, by gravely claiming to have killed Hotspur; and war, by offering the Prince his bottle of sack when he was asked for a sword; and religion, by amusing himself with remorse when he has none; and fear of death, by remaining untouched even while he feels the fear of it, dissolving it in persiflage while sitting at ease in his inn.”

Bloom regards Falstaff as an “outrageous version” of Socrates, and notes the link between him and Montaigne’s Socrates, in their “shared contrast of outer deformity and inner genius,” the theme especially of “On Physiognomy,” Montaigne’s most focused reflection on Socrates, whose real double-sidedness is not his face and soul so much as his unique ability to combine a seemingly unlimited skepticism and power of questioning—which uproots, at least initially, all foundations—while affirming the sovereignty of virtue in his values—which reasserts them. Sir John is no less double-sided in his ability to uproot all gravitas, all seriousness of purpose and morality in his playful assertion of freedom, but at the same time—as we read into the true tragedy of Henry IV—reveals his unlimited love for Hal, unlimited wish to free him of that “scutcheon” Honor and its cold, cold heart: “peremptorily I speak it, there is virtue in that Falstaff; him keep with, the rest banish.” It is a Christian death he dies, all mocking, just as it was a comic Resurrection he re-lived on the fields of Shrewsbury.

What Bloom does not pursue is the comic nature of Montaigne’s own Socratic self-image, the manner in which he too “rises” above the unities of dogma and faction, cruelty and virtue, willfulness and reason he sees anchoring human potential all around him. Even the reality of self—his ownmost nature—becomes for Montaigne the ironist something to be transcended by his art, so that, like Socrates, he now lives for us in his Essays, unburied in the cold, cold earth. Montaigne the 'assayist', Montaigne the tolerant, Montaigne the magnanimous man unburdened by pride, Montaigne the catholic unburdened by sin, Montaigne the skeptical collector of fantastic tales. Montaigne is engaged in a life of reason but mocking it, too, for its pretensions, bringing us, with him, back down to earth, to the body, to laughter and sunlight and love. I will a man to be not unlike Michel, a free spirit in the life of the mind, a free voice in the contentious world of rights and wrongs, a public private man who values both speech and touch and does not scold.

And yet the courteous Jesuitical counselor Gracian is not to me mistaken when advises us to give office a try (104). For we who are more solitary and perhaps extreme by nature, we who would remain of our own will at home, never to venture out into persons unknown, ambitious of mind yet un-adventurous of experience, may gain more from office than we surrender, without denying the value of our time. There is a way of living that is too enclosed upon itself, too vulnerable to loss and defeat because too un-battle hardened, too unwary and reticent at once, too self-protective to enlarge our loves, too unwilling to give oneself up to the sheer performance itself, however we may be received. Three times of life Baltazar calls for: (i) a life of learning from the dead in books; (ii) a life of the living in the world of action, facing the men of the time and meeting the women of the time; (iii) a life in a mind that has become one’s own, unburdened of persona. Three stages in a journey, which with grace we share with others, the last even more than the former.

Montaigne accepts the boundary of self-love, enfolding friend and foe creatively within it, a "gay and sociable wisdom." His Socrates learned in old age to dance, sometimes even at home alone. He knows well how to stand, to retreat, to play the card of truth. He knows how to find a man’s thumbscrew, to checkmate his will for his freedom. For there is no desire more natural than the desire for knowledge, and in this game like any other one must learn how to discard.

In Rome, the art of playing the man combined two humors, oft opposed. Without gravitas, there could be no government, of men or soul. Without humanitas, no release, from iron duty and harsh command. The task of true rhetoric was to find a path between decadence and force, a path of human persuasion, a path to our very selves. Montaigne is no Plato, no maker of imagined cities; nor is he old Jack Falstaff, for our chains of ambition are not like Hal's of steel, any more than are the fetters of our thought; perhaps we should see him, though, as a more gentle Machiavel, who would free us from our sin of willful reason, that the Prince in each of us might learn to make a better government in which to live, for ourselves and our kinsmen, out from under the thumb of others.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Thoughts on Machiavelli, Part II


Machiavelli is infamous for teaching new orders, or seeming to. Certainly he teaches that order must first be established by government over criminal men before it can concern itself with justice and good laws, and just as certainly he teaches that in principalities there are always those against whom the prince must either take preemptive violence or enlist them as soldiers in preemptive violence against outsiders. So he teaches that between states there is no justice insofar as there is not common law, nor would there be among all individuals in a state of nature or civil disorder, and certainly none between those who are armed and those who were not (#6). So the prince must first establish order out of disorder, and wage just war against those who would establish a regime of terror, including those serving him, if they go too far in their violence (#7).

But he also advises that princes respect and protect the private lives and property of the people, and not appear too distant but be close to and as it were live among the people (#3,9,17). And he advises that princes be loyal to the friends who are loyal to them and enemies to those who will not respect him, acknowledging that some who are loyal to the prince on his rise to power will turn against him out of their desire for more than the prince can give as he moves to the political center, and although this is natural it cannot be tolerated and if extreme must be made public example of if the prince is to unite and rule on behalf of the people as a whole (#3). And he advises the prince to embrace his role as commander in chief, and praise and support the nation's soldiers and their service to the freedom from fear and security of all (#12,14,17), to recognize and value the businessmen and artists and scientists who promote the general welfare (#21), and to choose advisors who tell him the truth and not merely what he may wish to hear (#22-23). And he urges princes to they revere and give thanks to God and the orders that instill moderation of ambition and religion among the great, who otherise would entirely oppress the people (#9,19)

He even praises some orders that represent the people and the great that might check princely ambitions (#19). For principalities in which all owe their being to the prince alone may be less easily conquered, but are more easily maintained, making them more tempting as a prize, since the cost is immediate but the gain is lasting (#4). And where there is some balance of power between the great and people, the prince can acknowledge the contributions of each and enlist each in the nation's cause, and these very contributions will enlist their service to the nation, for men feel loyalty to those they serve, as much or more than those who serve them (#10). And in all this he advises a system of government in which good arms are in the service of good laws, so that the people can pursue their private good and have no need to take action on their own behalf, but can trust in their leaders, and the prince is recognized as a leader and defender of the people, while not evoking so great a fear among the great that they conspire violently against him (#19).

Machiavelli also acknowledges that princes must practice morality, guarding themselves against themselves as much as against others, e.g. against the very natural wish to display their greatness before the people at great expense, though that would cause hatred among those whose property was seized unreasonably (economic irresponsibility, #16), and against their natural longing to be loved as gods by allowing their militant supporters licencious freedom (false loyalty and political injustice, #17), and against their natural aversion to moderating their plan of action for the sake of what emerges in the political landscape as the best course for all (willfulness and irresponsible pride, #18). For while princes must behave as honorably and faithfully and virtuously as possible, their first obligation is to be faithful to their country, even if that entails going back on previous commitments, or deceiving devious men of their own country or other countries for the sake of the common good (#19).

And the prince must be realistic about what can be attained, and not let the ideal stand in the way of the good and less evil, for the goal of the statesman is the art of the possible, and true goodness cannot be attained in this life, except in religious orders which cannot be practiced by all (#11,15,19). For the prince is the leader of the state, not the church, and the state serves the welfare of the people in relation to this life, while the church serves the welfare of the people in relation to the world to come (#11). And a prince has every right to encourage hope in the people that their work and properties and loved ones will be protected from oppressive burdens in this life, but the prince who would claim to bring eternal salvation and a reign of peace and love cannot but deny the order of heaven and fail to achieve freedom from fear and oppression and a reign of civic moderation and law here on earth (#25).

But in the affairs of this world, Machiavelli teaches it is cowardly for leaders to accept fate and not be proactive to shape it, and the prudent leader will act boldly to define the framework in which decisions are contested, rather than leave the definition to others (#25). So in every crisis there is opportunity to re-define the conditions of decision, and the ultimate callling of the prince is to lead the people in a just war of liberation against those who do or threaten to oppress them, foreign or domestic. And for this reason leaders are to be glorified in the public memory, and treated with the utmost respect and honor, and for this the leaders must enlist the people in the cause of the state and justice and the common good, and this is the ultimate aim of political life (Dedicatory letter, #9,26).

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Thoughts on Machiavelli, Part I


I take my title from what is to many an infamous book about an infamous book. It was a little over fifty years ago that Leo Strauss attacked the prevailing liberal scholarly opinion that Machiavelli should not be evaluated morally, as a "teacher of evil," but rather as the first political scientist and analyst of modern political reality. Strauss held, to the contrary, that we should evaluate Machiavelli morally--and even ask if he might not be right.

For better or for worse, I've confined my study of Machiavelli to the Prince and his 'naughty' comic drama Mandragola, never taking the time to read his Discourses (which I assumed required reading Livy first; the Prince is perhaps in the truer sense his more 'popular' work). I've taken Machiavelli at his word when he says each of his major works contains all of his wisdom, though they are marked by differences, e.g. someone who is called a prince in the one is designated a tyrant in the other. Is the distinction meaningful only from the perspective of the people, while the prince sees things as they are? Or do we need to see things from both perspectives, i.e. differently, to see how they are nonetheless the same? Perhaps I will never understand Machiavelli.

I have begun, in any case, to develop a sense of the movement of the work, in what I see as its four parts (i) States/principalities: 1-11 (ii) Art of War 12-14; (iii) Princely Virtue, including the Princely Counselor 15-23; (iv) Virtue and Fortune 24-26, and peaks e.g. 6, 19, 25; as well as its cast of characters, ancient and modern, founders (e.g. Moses) and failures (King Louis), lions (Cesare Borgia and Severus) and foxes (Alexander VI and Julius II).

I'm also cognizant of the world of difference between the Prince and its most relevant forerunner, Aquinas book On Kingship, which has as its ancestors the works of Plato and Aristotle, i.e. the "imaginary republics" of the ancients, as well as its other great influence, the "imaginary republic" of God. One of the revolutionary or mind-blowing exercises the reader can enter into is the task of developing Machiavelli's theology. What kind of a prince is the Christian God? What kind of a prince is Jesus? What is the power of this Prince over men, and in what sense do men rely on him for arms? What does it mean, to liberate Italy--and is this really Machiavelli's intention?

The great idea Machiavelli works with is the idea of "founding new orders," i.e. of conquering the world in such a way that it embraces you as its liberator. This is the path to double glory, even if it calls for violent crimes, verbal or not, at the beginning--they should be spectacular and memorable, and leave us amazed and stupified. I can't deny that is how Machiavelli leaves me feeling some times, e.g. his story of Cesare and Romagna, his praise of Ferdinand's piety, the re-conceiving of man as lion and fox. (In the comic version, the art of seduction replaces the art of love, and everyone ends up happy!)

We are left with the challenge by Machiavelli that the arts of living we have inherited from our philosophical and religious ancestors are dogmatic chains, while he tempts us with the ability to forge our own arms, acquire virtu (virtuousity), achieve a life of real, not imaginary success. It is a bold, radical, utterly free conception of the art of living, unfettered by God or reason or nature. Is Machiavelli a prophet of new orders, armed with weapons unlike any seen before--or is he a "teacher of evil"?

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Thoughts on Montaigne I


I find myself, like Montaigne, inscribing myself in these words, and thus making of my words a self: a strange occupation, and I wonder to what end? I do not wish to leave a monument behind, to awe or compel the emulation of my children; they have their own lives to live, and I do not want them to overdwell on my example. Still, the art of writing has its charms.

I find Montaigne's own art on fine display in Essays III.12, "On Physiognomy," that clever mask he dangles out before us of his "simple nature," as if the naive outer appearance were in no way different from the prudent inner man. But I am not as innocent as some of his readers, who consent to being deceived by his amiable ways. I am a bit like Socrates, that irritating old 'assayist' who might take away your faith, and like him too I have had to redirect my nature, though my physical looks are pleasant enough.

Who are the characters of this work? Somewhat in sequence: (i)Montaigne, compared to (ii) Socrates (no Cato), compared to (iii) the learned (ancient and modern) and the simple, compared to (iv) most of his friends and enemies in the civil war, zealous religionists and rebels together, compared to (v) himself and then again to (vi) the learned and the simple, and then again to (vii) Socrates as Montaigne presents him in his own words, and then to (viii) writers he uses, and then to (ix) Socrates as a model again and to himself. In the beginning we are moved by the lessons of the simple, but by the end it is the Socratic models that engage us.

So the essay moves from reflection on the art of writing and living in Montaigne's 'embellished' time, to life under the conditions of civil war, back to the themes of self- and other-knowledge, reason and nature, which at first seems to be no different from its first appearance or origin, but later we learn may lend itself to perfection through art, as can men.

It is natural to trust, but there is risk in it, especially if the times have distorted the easier path of things. It is natural to believe, to live in peace, to worship the gods of one's ancestors, to be a good citizen, to speak frankly on all things. But nature is oft changed herself by art, art or custom being a kind of second nature, as we are naturally inclined to both the care of ourself and the favoring view of others. And is not nature also rent--toward forceful law and undisciplined freedom?

We are not all like Montaigne, either so good by nature that we would not harm even our enemies nor so self-contained that we remain unmoved by their suffering, even if self-inflicted. We are not all like Socrates, needing to repair our nature by the art of forceful reason. But we may be more like each of them, if our ascent to what is lofty is completed with a descent to what is and is not our own. As for me, I am a modern, like Michel. I am what I am, without deceit. I love my freedom and respect yours as well.

Friday, September 11, 2009

My Art of Living II


I have been struck by a feature of aging that seems to me one of its great challenges: learning to cope with loss. Once you enter on the ‘downslide’ of your lifetime, assuming – as you now realize is presumptuous – that it will stretch out fourscore or more (or whatever may conform to the average of your ancestors), the confrontation with death and loss becomes a daily feature of the art of living. On the upside of life, the future looms open before you, all passed opportunities can be reclaimed, all injuries healed, all powers realized, and you are chiefly occupied with meeting the complex set of challenges you have invested yourself in, above all work (career) and love (family, friends).

But on the downside, things change. You begin to come to grips with the fact that every choice entails options not taken, every wound leaves scars that may not ever fully heal, and any loss, however seemingly transient, can be forever. Grief hits you as loved ones begin to fade into the darkness of minds locked now in old habits, and then are gone; children destroy or waste opportunities and narrow life’s options, yet still struggle on; vagueness and distraction troubles powers you once had to see and act; relationships lose their magic, to say nothing of their constancy; time itself is corroded by an element of desperation; hope seems a dubious gift.

The most common reaction to all this is anger. A deep, choking anger that spills out occasionally toward enemies and friends, a frustration at not being able to do as you pride yourself in doing, a bitterness that spews venom, as if harshness of thought and word and deed were enough to re-establish your strength, your ‘amounting to something’ in a world you feel slipping between your fingers.

But this, too, changes, if the old chestnut of wisdom through suffering begins to grow inside and shape a new form. A clearer sense of the division of what is in and out of your control, of the value of moral effort and attention to the possibilities of the moment, of the vagaries and mistakes you have made in estimating future costs and harms, of the joy that can be lived if you respect the present and what it offers, as opposed to what it might lack or a future that will hardly be as good or bad as you hoped or feared. I do not doubt that ambition must to some extent be realized, to let go of other ambitions that were never more than dreams, nor that desire never ceases to prick the mind and heart with fancies that may not and perhaps should not be made real.

If the turn of mind we have been considering means anything at all, it engages our reason with the task of learning its own limits, enables us to see hope as related to, rather than excluded by, the deep contingency of our being, and from that to gratitude for what and who we have and know, in our relations and our days. The flights of freedom Hadot speaks of need not be to “the view from above,” the presumption of universal reason; they can also be to “the view from down here,” in all its particularity and transience. To “seize the day” we must embrace the fact that it is just this day we can seize, not any other.

The ancient philosophers inspire our minds with ideals of reason and grace, which I believe we may use, with some reserve, to form a more reasonable, more self-sufficient and more compassionate attitude toward others and toward ourselves. The “spiritual exercises” Hadot would have us note and practice point to a life of reason, but I now see that life including accepting and loving myself with a less perfect, but also less coercive reason than I employed before, when I was driven by the “transcendental humors” Montaigne advises us to shed.

This transformation gave way to the release, the laughter I discovered, as I realized things were not as bad as I feared, that the moment contained much of value, and that I could embrace it now more fully, because unburdened by false dreams or fears. Even if I cannot play the game as strongly as I might have in the past, I play it more joyfully, more for the game itself and not a proof of virtue and self-worth, more with the other as a player, too, not in a higher or lower role. My mask of tragedy, anger, grief and loss has been covered by one of comedy, laughter, hope and joy, and I have regained the world as it is, as it gives itself to me in the kairos (opportunity) of my time.

Monday, September 7, 2009

My Art of Living I


My first thoughts regarding the ancient epistrophe eis heauton were skeptical. Wasn't this 'technology of self' mere ethical egoism, making your own self-reform the chief object of concern, rather than concern for the world? Wasn't it a sophisticated kind of ethical narcissism?

I studied more, experimented; gained respect. My second thoughts were also skeptical, but in a different mode: was it not too much to aim at, this transformation from within?

To distinguish what is in our control (the will) from everything else (the world) and relinquish entirely the latter as "indifferent" seemed to go too hard against my nature, which had its roots in the world that drew me to it -- a world of persons to touch and kiss, of roles and powers to enlarge my being, a 'self' I thought to make in it through acts with lasting outcomes, a world of knowledge, proofs, science, literature, creations of my own for good or evil, a world redone without the wounds of poverty or racism or war.

Was it possible to let all that go and recognize instead the boundary of myself as all that I could 'control'? To put in my focus the process/art with which I did as I did, to give myself entirely to the momentary act, with occasional humbling flights to the "view from above"? To accept, deeply, the limits and contingency of my wanting/being, to realize the limits and particularly of my feeling/understanding? So that even in my interactions, I would know the other as my Heraclitean opposite, clasped together in the fleeting time, the uncertain exchange of our inter-course with one another?

Were then the moments of courage, self-restraint, the just fit to the person and context, dialectical insight the daimones of our being-together in a world-game where the rules themselves could change? I had first regarded the conversion as an ascent to autonomous reason, the means whereby to separate the real world (mundus intelligibilis) from the fake; I was later drawn into a different kind of division, as if I had discovered the point of sailing was in just that and not in getting to the port (for we all would perish at sea).

My epistrophe eis heauton made me liberal and conservative, rationalist and existential, self-sufficient and accepting my dependencies, skeptical still, yet moved by simple faith. I gave up my nakedness for a patchwork shirt, made fit to each occasion. I am returned onto myself, in-dwelling, home. I cherish my cups and walls and indeed, I am a cup myself, for I have been broken and reglued, only to discover I was made of pieces all along. I am one, though ever-dissolving.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Ancient Art of Living II


I can’t think of Stoicism apart from my experience in the military police and the “gravitas” it lent my whole way of being and understanding in the world. I learned to live under another’s, and to give commands: obedience, focus, self-discipline, responsibility to station. I learned men suffered and were cruel. I learned men had to be tamed with force as well as words. If Epicureanism worked off the recognition of personal death and repudiation of religious hopes and fears in the interest of enjoying the moment, Stoicism seemed all about higher values--ideals of perseverance and courage, duty and honor, citizenship and service to country, the realization that life itself was a “just war” with internal and external enemies and action in uncertain conditions. If Epicureanism evoked images of gardens, dance, philosophy, happiness, Stoicism evoked images of armor, wrestling, logic, justice. These were, of course, first impressions. I seldom attributed “humanitas” or joy to the Stoics, and this was a mistake.

The Stoic “turn to the self” still seems to me to have a Roman military coloration, as the Epicurean a Hellenistic, pacific one. The Epicurean enjoys the world and values every pleasure. But the Stoic recognizes what Martha Nussbaum calls the “fragility of goodness.” The Stoic embraces the B+, the second best, as about the best we can ask for in reality, if not in thought. Give him law, and he will accept it as justice; give him science, he will make technology; give him family, he will make of it love. He knows how fast and far things can go south.

The Stoic is tough, and doesn’t want your sympathy. I once played golf with such a man, who’d lost in foot in battle. He had devised a steel shoe to let him pivot in his swing, but it kept giving way as he played, adjusting and struggling, all 18 holes without complaint. My German uncles, Karl and Erwin, survivors on the Russian front, surrenders in the west, were Stoics, too, as was my aunt Emily, whose husband died and left her with a small business and two young boys in a devastated country. They endured and in their own way prevailed.

It is a kind of aristocratic philosophy, of and for the responsible few, not the complaining many. I think that is part of why it is theistic, if not monotheistic, e.g. the "Hymn to Zeus," whereas the Epicurean philosophy, more democratic, has no room for the transcendent (some will dispute this, and point to purely loving or contemplating gods). But Stoicism is not ‘humble’ in the Christian way, all equal as fallen souls before the Almighty Father, or in the manner of Montaigne. The Stoic belongs to that ancient world in which the “great-souled man” is proud of his station and cares about his honor, a hierarchic world in which self-reliant lords are most fit to know and serve the King Divine. The Stoic Sage who leaves his own familial, human city to become a citizen in the Cosmic City of free and equal rational persons and friends—that Stoic lives in S1, the Stoicism of the mind, which is quite different from S2, Stoicism in actual life.

The Stoic life in the strict sense, as Hadot describes it, is hard work: (i) the constant massaging of emotions and desires, not least by meditation on nature and its lessons on the accidental smallness of our lives, (ii) of actions and relations to others by the sovereign measures of virtue and duty, (iii) of judgments and reasons by logic and ethics, to get the gold and sift out the “indifferent.” The rule of reason in the soul, the aspiration to be a sage. Might it finally be too great for us? And if so, are we strained toward cruelty toward ourselves or others, dividing all by good and evil, waging the war righteous by choice, rather than necessity? I began to wonder if the inner citadel could remain self-contained, or had to unleash its admonitions against a world that seemed too weak or else too cunning, that needed a good lesson. (Though some of the ancient Stoics, e.g. Aurelius, seem to have managed this temptation well.)

I now play the game more freely, less intent upon the form. I am unwilling to sacrifice myself for duty or God or country, or even, as I infer Nietzsche did, for truth. I seek my own human way, between the Stoic ideal and the Epicurean garden, a path that does not leave the world below, or behind. I don't want to be a mere tourist, but I also no longer want to play the cop. How then to shape my own, less strident rule of reason in my soul? What practices shall I retain, and which discard? What will be my integrity, if I would choose both virtue and happiness, and not deny that they are not the same?

Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Ancient Art of Living I


(4) I had the great pleasure last summer of reading Robert Poague Harrison’s wonderful Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition, which begins by discussing Heidegger’s interpretation of “care” (Sorge) as the chief dynamic of human existence, from which Harrison elides into care-taking as emblematic of whatever there may be to a human art of living. It is a theme also explored in Michael Polin’s fine Second Nature. When you combine this with the idea that all the ancient schools are inclined to understand the philosophical askesis or “discipline” of life as a “therapeia” or cultivation of emotion, desire, conduct and thought, the idea of the Epicurean retreat, the “epistrophe eis heauton,” the “conversion to oneself” comes into view as the true garden we are to dwell in.

Of course this is not easy. There is the press of the world, of the body, pleasure, sex, ambition, property, death, even the philosophical desire to know. Our dwelling may partake of more ‘trouble’ and ‘worry’ than we should wish, or the ancients thought we could avoid. How then to ‘cultivate’ that garden that is the self, if it is to take a well-ordered and pleasant form?

In this regard I have found it immensely interesting that the very thing Heidegger brings forward as a first condition of authentic or ‘resolute’ living—the consciousness of death and finitude, of ‘being’ = becoming in personal time—is thematized by Socrates in his defense of his life to the Athenians and then again in Epicurus’ Letter to Menoeceus. The re-cognizing of personal death as that beyond our thought and feeling, its incorporation in our self-knowledge as knowledge of ignorance and therefore not a genuine part of our life, therefore decisively as “nothing to fear”—this is a critical condition for Socratic wisdom on the good, and “Step #1” on the Epicurean Way.

And I do not doubt that some have gone there: not only Epicurus but no less a modern than David Hume is said to have died serenely, enjoying conversation with friends. But can any of us walk with such constancy today? Death is surely the trap door through which not we but each of us I’s fall out of the world. (“So it goes” as Kurt Vonnegut would say.) Just as certainly it seems a resolutely rational mind will not affirm it is to a different and better place, however much aging may induce acquiescence, but to no-where, no-thing so far as we can picture. Our being is life, and in this consideration my ‘self’ must shudder, even if I may be converted by it to a different, somehow both burden-lightened and doubly conscious, enlightened self.

With this in mind, we are spurred to reconfigure life as art—becoming not being, creation not nature. To make time, which before was chronos, “universal process,” awaken as kairos, “singular opportunity." To realize, as Hadot would put it: “the present alone is our happiness.” Thus may our being be eroticized, and we opened to freedom and uniqueness, including that of and with others. (Which is not to say the Epicurean admonitions of simplicity, law-abidingness, gentility, intellectual life and friendship do not still mark a well-traveled path.)

I'm increasingly convinced this ‘existentialist’ approach is critical for understanding the ancient arts of living, which otherwise seem to me to smack too much of theistic metaphysics, presumption, dogmatic rationalism, Christianity. (Even Plato's Symposium, in some ways a much better picture of the philosopher than the Apology, peaks in such a vision.) The prospect of ‘participation in universal Reason’ and of in taking one's place in the ‘harmony of the well-ordered Whole’ is enormously appealing, but as I’ve said before, that is not the world I know.

So I find Foucault’s contrast between morality as socially ('divinely') imposed norms of being and ethics as the art of freedom and self-government useful for understanding the ancients, especially the Epicureans, even if it distorts somewhat the Stoic self-conception. The art of living is a human art, not the work of a mortal god.

As a footnote I should add: we need also to take account of the 'narcissizing' social net enclosing us, the world of images, commodities, politics, ambitions and lifestyles we all dwell in. (A child of five today, with a vocabulary of perhaps 1000 words, knows over a hundred brand names.) We cannot enter an Epicurean garden today without taking our appetites and 'values' along, and that of course means we enter in badly. We are too enthralled, and not so easily separated from, the world of the "Mad Men." Our greatest artists are still Jagger and Warhol. We run the risk of two-dimensional lives. The "turn to the self" may need to take at some point a less private path than we first thought, if we are to find a 'self' worth cultivating, and in which we can be happy. (Or so it has been for me. More on this later.)

Tuesday, August 25, 2009


I was standing, in my comic nightmare of Plato's Apology, before the Faculty Senate, giving my “defense speech” against an Administration that sought to eliminate philosophy from the University. What kind of knowledge do you claim to possess, I was asked before a hostile audience, and if you can’t prove you have some or teach an art or practical skill—why should you be a "basic study" in higher education? My department, my profession, my job and livelihood were at stake, and I was not persuasive. I woke up in a sweat, vaguely troubled by the sense that I might be defending something more like what Socrates might call sophistry, a claim to wisdom but in fact no more than logic-chopping, versatility with ethical theories, a “critical perspective”—that taught you what? Some of my philosophical colleagues might blurt out: that all these other so-called arts and sciences don’t know who they are, spread a lot of intellectual jam out there, call it expertise and get good money. But wasn’t that foolish or arrogant or both?

If the Euthyphro spurs us to ask: what is pious? reverent? godly? righteous? religious? the Apology of Socrates spurs us to ask: what is philosophy and who defines it? The Euthphro puts faith on trial in the court of public reason. The Apology puts philosophy on trial in the court of ancient law. Both are condemned, though by different norms. Socrates’ old accusers knew philosophy to be an attitude of mind that found nothing sacred, a proud capacity to ‘spin’ born of sophistic shamelessness, a word-monger’s eagerness for students to pay and look up to them--mere critics biting productive hands, the intellectual worm in the societal apple. The suspicious dislike of my colleagues in the arts, sciences and professional schools for me and my ilk has its counterpart in the more Republican part of the republic for all of us academic types, but even they have a special dislike for those of us who, they judge, doubting ourselves want to teach their children to doubt what everyone knows is right and wrong, good and bad, worthwhile and just a waste of time.

How differently the philosopher’s mission seems, if we see his incessant questions, dividing and uniting, as divinely or naively inspired, rather than as a kind of arrogant defiance of the god whose truth and oracle he would “refute.” But then, by his or by his now deceased student Chairophon’s story, Socrates “is wisest of all.” How differently his logic seems, whether we see in it the longing search for the ‘beings’ that are or self-knowledge, rather than the relentless negating of everything his interlocutors’ believe in. The righteous and godly Euthyphro has his counterpart in the righteous and law-enforcing Meletus, and there is something pleasing or entertaining in Socrates’ devastating refutations of them, and in the thought that we too are not self-deceived. And yet, might not they, like others entangled in Socrates' webs, have come to know themselves better, had they not reached for the sword to cut their way out?

And what are we now to make of this way of life that he says he (a new Achilles) chose because he thought it best? Of his seeking to persuade the Athenians to care more for truth and the virtue of their souls than wealth or fame or honor? Does he ‘transcend’ his ignorance concerning the most important things? Does he slip illicitly, somewhere past midway in his apologia, from agnostic to gnostic wisdom, from merely examining to philosophizing? What are we to make of the rule of reason, and his dictum the good man can't be harmed? The Stoic school would anchor their art of living on this Socratic difference between moral and non-moral goods, absolute and relative value, personal integrity and worldly gain. Can the Socrates who in serving examines the god also rest his case to the people on this? And if so, does it matter--perhaps make all the difference--that Plato's Socrates acts on what he professes?

I asked my students, at the end of our discussion of the Euthyphro, to write for the next class on whether a religious person could live an examined life. The skepsis that belongs to the philosopher’s “care for the self” might seem to rule that out. What faith could survive a methodology that in principle excludes a final step? The Socratic ship sails on a sea of uncertainty, open to where the winds of life and reason take it, a journey of movement, not anchored rest. But if we are persuaded by the “whole truth” Socrates claims to tell in his defense speech, we begin to wonder if this is not his form of piety, his faith, his truth (cf. Nietzsche’s Gay Science #344). And again: does not this truth include his practice?

Like Socrates, I did not take the path of faith, but of skepsis, examination as a critical mode of my "care for the self," my "art of living." My world is mortal, bounded by things wholly, not partially transcendent. I am like the post-medieval inquirer who pulls back the fair tapestry of unexamined faith, and sees a limitless less beautiful universe beyond. But must I not still, like Socrates and many of his students, aspire to a life that imitates ‘reason’ or ‘being’--albeit occluded from the gods--within a world of change? Can someone who is not in this way ‘religious’ live an examined life?

Monday, August 24, 2009


We began the class with the Euthyphro, the first dialogue in Plato’s tetralogy enacting the philosopher’s trial and death. Euthyphro (“Mr. Orthodox” or “Straight-brain” in Greek) plays the comically inflated defendant to the tragically ignorant prosecutor Socrates, who puts Euthyphro’s divine wisdom and piety on trial as a stand-in for the Athenians who also want to “punish the wicked.” In fact Euthyphro is an unnaturally pious figure compared to the ordinary faithful, no mere earthling but enthused by his knowledge of the wonders of the city’s gods, wanting proudly to do as they do, to please them, to serve them in all righteousness, even onto parricide. It is not only Socrates who is “fascinatingly ugly.”

I met Euthyphro most recently in Utah, where I spoke at a conference on evolution and higher education. He was the “sainted” visitor guide glowing with histories of LDS miracles, the doctor who would never die, the transported young girl about to leave on her mission to Lithuania. The spectre of Euthyphro haunts American politics these days, and he carries a gun.

I have mostly thought of the world of faith and the faithful as beyond reason; you step through its door and will yourself not to look back. But what then to make of the other door, which tags that world with questions, marks it as a shadow place, made up of hope and fear? Not that the hope and fear is any less real, even if you now consider the images may be no more natural than human clothing, and even if in that regard Euthyphro represents an extreme (albeit part of the norm). Euthyphro’s mind cannot endure the Socratic dissection, though it may not really matter, since Socrates speaks in mere human words. Or does Socrates penetrate his mask, expose it to him? I’ve never been sure, one way or the other, how to interpret the end. (And this may be important, for in Plato's art of writing, both word and deed are relevant to the meaning.)

A comforting reading of the dialogue suggests that Euthyphro would have been better off, had he believed in (the) just and good god(s) Socrates believes in, poetic god(s) worthy of the highest service, virtue and the therapy of souls, the piety of knowing we do not know as gods know. But the same analysis suggests that/those god(s) would also have been measured by ideas of justice and goodness above them. I wonder then: can this still imply the ultimate principle = “<God>”? Or must that not--since nothing could be more perfectly incomprehensible--be meaningless to mortal reason? The contradiction Socrates exposes in the theology of warring gods will then turn out, on this discomforting reading, to reveal a worm at the core of all theology. I have myself been drawn toward both alternatives, sacred and profane, but my nature is always to return to the profane.

The Socratic dialogue does not ask what is god? even if it touches on this question. It asks what is piety? if we assume piety is a virtue. It suggests piety could not be a virtue if we did not know what it is, i.e. if we did not possess Socratic wisdom to seek it. But that is the wisdom of ignorance, including and perhaps especially of divine things whatever form they take. Or will that conclusion too not put an end to it, if we have encountered wondrous things in the souls and logoi in which we sought our answer?

Like Socrates, I did not take the path of faith, but of “skepsis,” examination as a critical mode of my "care for the self," my "art of living." My world is mortal, bounded by things wholly, not partially transcendent. I am like the medieval inquirer who pulls back the fair tapestry of faith, and sees a limitless less beautiful cosmos beyond. I do not know what or if there is anything beyond those limitless limits. I am pricked by the spur of time and unfulfilled desire. I live and think, uneasily, in a world of becoming, not being.

Thursday, August 20, 2009


Everyone who takes this path has their own Socrates. Mine was Morris Kaplan, an imperfect incarnation, but one none the less—fascinatingly ugly, engaged with the greatest questions, unbeatable in argument. And so the door opened for me into the bright light of philosophy, and I walked through it.

Note the phrase, “fascinatingly ugly.” For me, as for Socrates’ students, the philosopher did not appear as a harmonious whole, at one in his being and truth. He was troubling. He questioned, sharply, powerfully, but didn’t have answers, except to study Plato and the other great minds of philosophy—and that gave no answers, just more questions. I was attracted to a way of thinking and being that seemed to have its home in an open sea, in a world without foundations. No ‘God,’ the ultimate answer. No ‘America’—it had been ripping apart for years (it was 1965, I was a sophomore at Yale). No certainties of ethics or even personal life. Somehow philosophy was at home in a universe and society permeated through and through with chaos.

On that path, however, were logoi sokratikoi, the conversations I had with Morris and my other Socrates, Bob Anderson, and then with Plato’s Dialogues themselves, and I was captured in them by some of the same puzzlements as the ancient interlocutors of Plato’s Socrates, and lifted up out of my puzzlement into new ways of thinking and puzzled again, as those insights were questioned, too.

So I was drawn into the thought and the life. For like Socrates himself, neither Morris nor Bob was a Sage, but a “philo-sopher,” a lover of wisdom, not just a theorizer about philosophy, but individuals who lived it, passionately, the only way they could be. I wanted that from philosophy too: to make the epistrophe eis heauton, the “conversion of the self to myself” and to the philosophical life—which paradoxically could not be separated from questioning how to live that life. Attracted to it, repelled by it, eventually making it my own.

This blog is about that life, as I live and think about it this fall, as I am teaching my class, “The Art of Living,” and as I read and reflect on the thoughts and ways of the philosophers who have had the most to say about philosophy as a way of life, pro or con. We will be reading the ancients, their modern critics, and American and contemporary authors in the tradition of the “art of living.” The last time I taught the class the students created a chapbook with some wonderful essays. We'll do that again, and I’ll reflect on their work and create some of my own as the semester unfolds and I seek, in better and more fulfilling ways, to live a philosophical life.